Network news: creating connectivity

To deliver a fast, efficient and fit-for-purpose IT network, partnership is at the core of it all, finds Jenny Hampton

When thinking about creating or upgrading an IT network, it would be easy to focus on the technology: cloud versus onsite servers, fiercely protective firewalls and filters, and the latest fibre-optic broadband. While all these tools are vital for the delivery of service, the maximum benefits aren’t going to be felt without first creating sustainable and healthy partnerships with students, staff and suppliers, and making sure the right infrastructure is in place.

Know your audience

Understanding what an organisation needs is more vital than the technology used. It’s no good having the latest tech installed if it doesn’t meet the needs of the organisation, if the existing infrastructure can’t support it, or if there isn’t enough in the budget to train the users on it. It has to add value once it’s put into practice and if additional resources are needed for this, that has to be considered in the planning stages.

This isn’t just the job of the IT department. Upgrading an IT network isn’t about buying hardware, it’s about finding out what that hardware is used for. This is a lengthy, in-depth exercise that includes the whole organisation and needs to be directed by the top levels of management.

For example, a typical university will have four user groups to consider:

– Back office staff

 – Lecturers

 – Students

 – Researchers

Each will have different needs in terms of when and how they access the network, the type of devices they use and the level of bandwidth they need. A physics research team, for example, can use up to four times the bandwidth of the rest of the university combined. One group may get prioritised over another and this is where stakeholder engagement kicks in. The university may need to hold focus groups to find out what each group needs from the network and in some cases lower expectations.

Mike Burns, Customer Services Manager in the learning and information services department at the University of the Highlands and Islands, says this personal contact with users helps his department get a real feel for what is needed: “We make a point to go out and speak to our stakeholders in person. This includes sending someone up to an island to listen to students. We try and understand their frustrations rather than hide behind the technology,” he said.

In 2017, BESA research projected that 1,179,300 computers across primary schools regularly used wifi, an increase of 6% on 2016 figures. The research also projected that in 2017 1,419,700 computers across secondary schools regularly used wifi, an increase of 10% on 2016 figures

A specialist broadband provider, or one who is willing to learn, is also of vital importance. For a school, which will likely have less budget and qualified personnel to call on, this relationship can help to determine their requirements and provide the specific service they need.

David Ryder, Head of IT Services at Abbey Multi Academy Trust says creating this kind of relationship has proved invaluable: “We’ve built up a good relationship with our provider, Schools Broadband, based on giving them really honest feedback on what’s working, and what’s not. The reason we’ve stayed with them for eight years is because they will listen and adapt to what we need.”

Security and accessibility

For a school’s ICT department, safeguarding is its most important job. This is an area where it really isn’t worth trying to economise. A cheap commercial deal may look good on paper but if the provider doesn’t have specialist knowledge of how to apply content filtering as set out by the Department of Education, it’s going to put students and the reputation of the school at risk. A switched-on partner is vital here.

The process of setting the levels of filtering and access depends on the culture of individual schools and how that works in practice is something that the management of the school needs to work out in partnership with the IT department and the internet provider.

The guidance from the DfE is that internet sites viewed by students must be age-appropriate. However, each school can make a call on what ‘age-appropriate’ is.

Steve Forbes, Security, Compliance and Online Safety Specialist at RM Education agrees that the service provider has an important role to play in this: “It needs a clued-up broadband provider who can offer a filter for age appropriate sites,” he said. “There is definitely a balance to strike between giving students and teachers access to the educational resources they need and allowing through inappropriate materials.”

He added that there are certain topics that can be grey areas, which take some real thinking about: “Take the topic of drugs: we don’t want to allow students access to content that encourages usage, but we do want older students to be able to carry out research about the effects of drugs.”

At university level, there’s a different focus. There is no age-appropriate requirement, but there is a duty to filter out extremist and explicit content. Students will chance their arm and try to use university resources to access inappropriate material, which at the very least is taking that resource away from those that need it for legitimate coursework.

It’s possible to enter into a dialogue with students to manage this, said Mike Burns: “Students request access for dating and betting sites. We ask them to get back-up from their course tutor, and if it’s necessary for their course of study we will allow it. Having that extra check stopped a lot of spurious approaches.”

Living in the cloud

More and more providers are steering organisations towards using cloud-based networks. You can see the appeal: it is possible to change the amount of storage you need month by month. This means that, during a busy time such as exams, the IT department can ramp up the storage levels, then downgrade them over the summer holidays.

It also makes working from home or at multiple sites, and on multiple devices, easier. This meets the growing demand for flexible working and learning from both teaching staff and students, including, at university level, more distance learning, part-time courses and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).

And it’s nearly always cheaper. The user organisation isn’t responsible for the storage of an onsite data centre or the maintenance of hardware. This represents a huge cost saving.

When is it suitable to use the cloud? Oliver Pearson, General Manager at Think IT said: “You need a robust infrastructure, and comprehensive and reliable wireless coverage. If that’s in place, I would always recommend the cloud. The cost savings that can be made are significant.”

As well as having the right tech in place, a trustworthy cloud-based provider with an established track record is also vital. A worry of running a network offsite is the security and consistency of service over which the IT department has no direct control. However, Steve Forbes commented that if you go for one of the tech giants there’s no need to be concerned: “If you are using Microsoft or Google, they spend billions on this, way more than any school ever could, so it’s likely they will do a better job of keeping their platforms safe and functional.”







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